Why Have Christians Suddenly Become So Divided?

Dr. James Emery White
Dr. James Emery White

Ponder this assessment from Timothy Dalrymple, President and CEO of Christianity Today:

“One group within American evangelicalism believes our religious liberties have never been more firmly established; another that they have never been at greater risk. One group believes racism is still systemic in American society; another that the “systemic racism” push is a progressive program to redistribute wealth and power to angry radicals. One is more concerned with the insurrection at the Capitol; another with the riots that followed the killing of George Floyd. One believes the Trump presidency was generationally damaging to Christian witness; another that it was enormously beneficial. One believes the former president attempted a coup; another that the Democrats stole the election. One believes masks and vaccines are marks of Christian love; another that the rejection of the same is a mark of Christian courage.”

It is, of course, an apt description of what he calls “the splintering of the evangelical soul.” But why is it so pronounced? He writes of two dynamics: the plausibility curve and the information curve.

First, the plausibility curve. “Imagine,” he writes, “a horizontal plane that curves downward into a bowl, rises back again and returns to a horizontal plane.”

“The curve, from one end of the bowl to the other, represents the range of claims an individual finds believable. Let’s call it a plausibility curve. Claims that fall in the center of the curve will be perceived as most plausible; they require little evidence or argumentation before an individual will consent to believe. Claims falling near the edges are increasingly implausible as they deviate from the center, requiring progressively more persuasion. Claims falling entirely outside the plausibility curve are beyond the range of what a person might believe at a given point in time, and no amount of evidence or logic will be sufficient.”

From this, what determines the plausibility of any given claim is “how well it conforms to what an individual experiences, already believes, and wants to believe.” It stands to reason that it will require more persuasion for us to embrace claims we do not want to believe than those we do. It also goes without saying that personal plausibility curves can change with time and circumstance, and what I might find plausible another might find inconceivable.

This, writes Dalrymple, is where the information curve comes into play.

“Imagine a mirror-image bowl above the plausibility curve. This is the information curve, and it reflects the individual’s external sources of information about the world—such as communities, authorities, and media. Those sources in the center of the information curve are deemed most trustworthy; claims that come from these sources are accepted almost without question. Sources of information on the outer ends of the bowl are considered less trustworthy, so their claims will be held up to greater scrutiny. Sources outside the curve entirely are, at least for this individual, so lacking in credibility that their claims are dismissed out of hand.”

The center of the information curve, he notes, will generally align with the center of the plausibility curve. In other words, the relationship is “mutually reinforcing.”

“Sources are considered more trustworthy when they deliver claims we find plausible,” he writes, “and claims are considered more plausible when they come from sources we trust.”  

Together, we have an “informational world.” An informational world “encompasses how an individual or a community of individuals receives and processes information,” says Dalrymple. “Differing informational worlds will have differing facts and sources. Our challenge today is that we occupy multiple informational worlds with little in common and much hostility between them.”

And it is that which has created the splintering of the evangelical soul. Again, Dalrymple:

“This sense of commonality grew increasingly strained as groups not formerly identified as evangelical came to be lumped together, defining the category “evangelical” less in theological terms and more in social, cultural, and political terms. This broader evangelical movement today is dividing into separate communities that still hold some moral and theological commitments in common but differ dramatically on their sources of information and their broader view of the world. Their informational worlds have little overlap. They can only discuss a narrow range of topics if they do not want to fall into painful and exasperated disagreement.”

So, what can be done? We must “move the information curves toward a common center.” Then, “the plausibility curve will follow.” And information comes from three sources: media, authorities and community. In short, we must: 1) bring sanity to our media consumption; 2) reestablish trusted leadership; and 3) rather than withdrawing into “communities of common loathing, the church should be offering a community of common love.”

There is much more in the article—it is worth taking the time to read in full. But fewer words are more needed and truer than those by which he concludes:

“So perhaps we can begin to build bridges across our informational worlds. Perhaps we can nurture a healthy media ecosystem that offers a balanced view of the world and a generous conversation about it. Perhaps we can restore a culture of leadership defined by humility over celebrity and integrity over influence. Perhaps we can invite those who have found counterfeit community in their political tribes to rediscover a richer and more robust community in Christ. All of these things will be essential to rebuilding a shared understanding of the world God created and what it means to follow Christ within it.”

James Emery White

Sources

Timothy Dalrymple, “The Splintering of the Evangelical Soul,” Christianity Today, April 16, 2021, read online

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.


Originally published April 29, 2021.